Ian Sansom

The best British short stories — from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith

Philip Hensher’s two-volume anthology is bigger and broader than anything else available — and handsome enough to hang on the wall

Philip Hensher, the thinking man’s Stephen Fry — novelist, critic, boisterously clever — begins his introduction to his two-volume anthology of the British short story with typical gusto. ‘The British short story is probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world.’ Take that, ye upstart Americans, with your dirty realism and your New Yorker swank! Read it and weep, ye Johnny-come-latelys! Look to your laurels, Chekhov and Carver. Jorge Luis Who? Maupassant? Bof!

And there’s more — much much more. In a short introduction of just 35 pages Hensher sets out his stall, settles some old scores and convincingly establishes himself as a world authority on the subject of the short story, even though these days his own books — The Northern Clemency, The Emperor Waltz — tend to be vast baggy monsters with grand state-of-the-nation ambitions. (Though it’s worth remembering that way back last century A.S. Byatt concluded her Oxford Book of English Short Stories [1998]with Hensher’s ‘Dead Languages’ — quite a compliment, and well deserved. Hensher now dutifully returns the compliment, dedicating his Penguin Book to Byatt, and including one of her own stories, naturally.)

If you buy both volumes — Defoe to Buchan and Wodehouse to Zadie Smith — and you absolutely should, because as books, as objects, they are as good as it gets, quality paper, thick-set, sewn, and handsome enough to hang on a wall — you get the same introduction twice. Fortunately it’s worth rereading. The second time around you start to notice the tiny little pricks and barbs that you missed the first time. Hilary Mantel gets a little dig (‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is ‘not a very accomplished piece of work’). There is short shrift given to abstruse arguments and ‘restrictive explanations’ about the short story: Hensher blames such nonsense on ‘the rise of creative writing as an academic discipline’.

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